Sunday, 23 February 2014

Hunger, anxiety and labour pains

I read Jack Monroe's blog post, 'Hunger Hurts' in church this morning. Her 'pull no punches' description of life as a mum of a 2-year-old boy, struggling to keep a roof over their heads and a bit of food in their stomachs, when Housing Benefit errors have left her in rent arrears, planning to take the TV and the guitar to the pawnbrokers, and barely a thing to eat:
Now I’m not only in arrears, but last night when I opened my fridge to find some leftover tomato pasta, an onion, and a knob of stem ginger, I gave the pasta to my boy and went to bed hungry with a pot of home made ginger tea to ease the stomach pains. 
This morning, small boy had one of the last Weetabix, mashed with water, with a glass of tap water to wash it down with. ‘Where’s Mummys breakfast?’ he asks, big blue eyes and two year old concern. I tell him I’m not hungry, but the rumblings of my stomach call me a liar. But these are the things that we do.
Read the whole piece. It's harrowing reading - but any of us who've never been in that position need to face the reality squarely in the face:
Poverty isn’t just having no heating, or not quite enough food, or unplugging your fridge and turning your hot water off... Poverty is the sinking feeling when your small boy finishes his one weetabix and says ‘more mummy, bread and jam please mummy’ as you’re wondering whether to take the TV or the guitar to the pawn shop first, and how to tell him that there is no bread or jam.
 Run this up against Jesus' words that begin today's gospel reading, and we have a bit of a problem:
‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?' (Matthew 6:25)
Don't worry?! How can we take Jesus' words seriously? How can we possibly dare to echo them, in the hearing of people like Jack and her young son, when hunger is aching in her stomach, anxiety gnawing away in her guts?

We might, just possibly, find the beginnings of a response in the passage from Paul's letter to the Romans that we heard just before our gospel. In it, we discover an aching, a 'groaning', on a cosmic scale. All creation, the whole universe, is groaning, aching, for liberation. And through it all, God is groaning, aching too. It is no coincidence that the word in Hebrew for 'compassion', and the word in Greek too, are both rooted in the guts. When any of God's children ache with hunger, God aches too, in her guts. Neither is it any coincidence that in the previous chapter of Matthew's gospel Jesus pronounces God's blessing on those who groan with hunger for justice. When we feel compassion in our guts, when we ache for justice and liberation for all created things, we are longing, aching, with God herself.

No one who's caught any news this past week can have missed an open letter, published in the Daily Mirror, signed by Anglican bishops and senior representatives of the Methodists, URC and Quakers. In it, they echo Jack Monroe's story, but underline that such stories are repeated over and over again, across the country:
Britain is the world’s seventh largest economy and yet people are going hungry. Half a million people have visited foodbanks in the UK since last Easter and 5,500 people were admitted to hospital in the UK for malnutrition last year. One in five mothers report regularly skipping meals to better feed their children, and ever more families are just one unexpected bill away from waking up with empty cupboards. 
We often hear talk of hard choices. Surely few can be harder than that faced by the tens of thousands of older people who must “heat or eat” each winter, harder than those faced by families whose wages have stayed flat while food prices have gone up 30% in just five years. 
Yet beyond even this we must, as a society, face up to the fact that over half of people using foodbanks have been put in that situation by cut backs to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions.
 The letter calls on the government to 'do its part': 'acting to investigate food markets that are failing, to make sure that work pays, and to ensure that the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger.'

But despite the inevitable backlash from those in denial or comfortable indifference, it is not a letter that shifts all the responsibility onto others. It highlights the hundreds of thousands of people who have already taken action, setting up and supporting foodbanks; and it urges people of all faith and none, people of good conscience, to join together in a time of fasting during the season of Lent, beginning on March 5th, when Christians traditionally seek to 'draw closer to our neighbour and closer to God'.

The letter marked the launch of the End Hunger Fast campaign, an invitation to embrace in our guts even a small glimpse of the hunger that so many of our neighbours experience every day: to let compassion, and a hunger for justice, change us; to allow fasting, praying and reflecting lead to speaking and acting for change in our society. Here in Birmingham we're taking on the challenge, siting a garden shed - the 'Hunger Hut' - in Cathedral Square for the duration of Lent, to engage Birmingham's shoppers, workers and passers-by, inviting them to share their own stories of hunger as we gather together a 'Hunger Journal' from across the region, and offering space to write prayers, and make pledges for action. [To find out more and get involved in Birmingham, click here!]

But there is more.

Because when Paul tells the Roman Christians that 'all creation groans', he's not talking just about the ache of hunger. He's talking about a groaning as much in God's womb as in God's guts. He's talking about the pains of labour, of birthing.

I've had the privilege to witness two births. The first, especially, was long, with much pain, and with moments of acute anxiety and fear. There were times when Janey and I thought we might be losing our first child, as his heart-rate plummeted and we saw the looks of concern on the faces of the doctors and midwives present. But in the end, Rafi was born, alive and well, and the gnawing anxiety was replaced with floods of tearful joy.

Something new is coming to birth. It is of a cosmic scale, but we can, at least, catch glimpses of it in our own local neighbourhoods.

In Hodge Hill, we have deliberately resisted setting up a FoodBank so far. Not because the need has not been here, not because none of our neighbours are going hungry. Tragically, there is hunger here, just as in so many other neighbourhoods across the country. But we have wanted to resist simply creating another place where people whose dignity and self-respect has already taken a brutal battering, are forced to queue up, empty handed, for a food parcel that will last them 3 days, wrestling again with that gnawing anxiety, that after three visits even this last 'safety net' might be taken away. I have been involved in setting up this kind of model, and have written here before about its deep ambivalences.

What we're developing here now, inspired by the amazing story of The Stop in Toronto, Canada, is something a bit different. A 'community house' where people can come and grow food together, cook food together, eat food together, and, yes, if they need to, take away some food to help them through the days ahead. But a place that doesn't have vouchers, no 'customers', no labels, no 'handouts' - a place where people are welcomed as fellow human beings with gifts as well as vulnerabilities, where strangers become friends, where all have something to contribute, where loving community is grown, and where the food on the table is for all to share. A place about far more than meeting immediate needs - a place where the hardest questions can be asked about systems that turn a blind eye, and push people to the edges, and allow people to go hungry. A place where people who are used to being silenced and ignored can begin to find their own voices, to speak with courage, and anger, and challenge, and possibility. It will be, I dearly hope, a glimpse of the 'new creation' that, to take Paul's image in the letter to the Romans, is 'coming to birth' in the aching, groaning world as we know it.

Jesus' 'don't worry' is not the first word, although it might just possibly be one of the last. In the glimpses we catch of what is coming to birth, we see a community, a society, where people care deeply for each other, where none go hungry, where gnawing anxiety is replaced by floods of joy. 'Strive for the kingdom of God,' says Jesus. Hunger for it. Ache for it. Pray for it. Act for it. Today, and in the days to come.

[NB. if our 'community house' sounds like something you might want to get involved with yourself, please do get in touch with us - more details here!]


  1. Hi Al, thanks for your post, it was an interesting read. Whereabouts in Romans are the verses about groaning? Cheers

  2. Thanks, Robbie. I was working with Romans 8:18-27. Hope that helps. Al